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John Robert Colombo reviews: Reflections on Gurdjieff’s Whim

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John Robert Colombo reviews Keith A. Buzzell’s latest publication

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These days the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) is much in the news, at least in the American news, occasioned by the candidacy for the leadership of the Republican Party of the person of Mitt Romney, the Massachusetts Senator and Presidential hopeful. The man who has his eye set on occupying the Oval Office of the White House is a fifth-generation Mormon, and while he has lived a squeaky clean life to date, he apparently holds as gospel truths some of the bizarre beliefs and strange practices of the Mormon church.

Recently a researcher drew the attention of the reading public to the fact that in the eyes of Mormons, God is not the creator of the world. He is not the creator of the universe either, though it seems God resides “in” the universe and not “beyond” it. This is peculiarity that should be of interest to both theologian and geophysicist. Who then did create the heavens and the earth? Genesis 1:1 of the King James Version of the Bible states that God accomplished the deed “in the beginning.” Here is the standard Christian belief in the wording of the Apostle’s Creed: “God the Father Almighty … Creator of Heaven and Earth.”

The Mormon belief, formulated over eighteen decades ago, is that God, while in no way the architect of creation, nevertheless is a dweller in it as well as its superintendent. Indeed, the location of “divine throne” is known, for it is “near” Kolob, which is a celestial body in some distant sector of the cosmos, unsuspected by astrologer and unknown to astronomer. Is Kolob a planet or a star? The Mormon writings are obscure on this point, rather like the traditional beliefs of the Inuit of the Arctic whose cosmology conflates planets and stars. It does seem that the Mormon God is more akin to mankind than to spirit-kind.

Are the Mormons Christians? It seems that they are Christians in the same way that members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community are Muslims. Their membership in greater Islam is denied by Sunni and Shite alike, especially in Pakistan where the Parliament passed a statute declaring the Ahmadiyyas to be non-Muslims: So there! In the same way, fundamentalist Christian denominations and sects in the U.S. heartland refuse to extend the term “Christian” to include Mormonism: Take that! Yet the Ahmadiyyas consider themselves to be good Muslims, just as the Mormons consider themselves to be good Christians.

I am not sure why it is so, but I find all of this reassuring. Perhaps it reassures me because it is so human – to cling to peculiar beliefs, in lieu of any evidence at all, and to withhold validation to designated groups on account of their differing beliefs. It reminds me of the subterfuge and euphemism employed by Palestinians and other Muslims who insist on referring to the State of Israel as “the Jewish entity.” All too human!

With respect to the LDS tradition, it is enlightening that there should be a god or demiurge who lives on a celestial body named Kolob, for it seems the divinity is a being who – or which – has some sort of physical or corporeal existence. There is no reference to Kolob in “The Book of Mormon,” but it makes its appearance in the quasi-scriptural text “Pearl of Great Price.” The subject is of interest in that one may be a good Mormon without worrying much about the nature of divinity, whether architect or superintendent of the universe. In a sense, then, belief is a matter of degree and the responsibility of the individual and hence changeable.

I could continue with a discussion of bizarre beliefs held by many Christians – such as the rise and fall of the concept of Purgatory, not to mention the existence of states of Heaven and Hell, veneration of angels and saints, prayers for the posthumous rehabilitation of the death, the physical resurrection at the End of Days, etc. All of these fall into the province of Theology, the “queen of the sciences.” The list of endless. As the cartoonist Robert L. Ripley of “Believe It or Not!” fame once wrote, “Strange indeed is man seeking after his gods.”

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What does all of this have to do with what appears below, or with the new book that I am about to review? (I use the verb “to review” with some reluctance because the book in question is a weighty one, and the arguments it presents are complex, indeed too complex to encapsulate in a relatively short review article.) The answer to the question is “not much,” except that there is little evidence for what is being described in the book’s pages. If the descriptions are taken seriously, the deductions and extensions truly follow. So the book is a disciplined work, a work of scholarly analysis. It is titled “Reflections on Gurdjieff’s Whim,” and I will describe the physical appearance of the volume before I turn my attention to its author, Keith A. Buzzell and to his previous publications, and only then to the general argument of the new book.

Reflections on Gurdjieff’s Whim” is published in 2012 by Fifth Press, an imprint based in Salt Lake City, Utah, the Mormon headquarters (as it happens!), which has issued earlier titles by Dr. Buzzell. It is a handsome trade paperback, 266 pages of text, plus preliminary and postliminary matter, including a glossary of scientific (but not Gurdjieffian) terms and a bibliography that includes books and articles on philosophy, neurology, cosmology, mathematics, etc. There is no index, but the text is well organized in fourteen chapters, and there are four instructive prefaces (contributed by the book’s editors, John Amaral, Marlena Buzzell, Bonnie Phillips, and Toddy Smyth). There are also innumerable diagrams, many of them in lovely pastel colours. A rough approximation of the word count is 145,000 words. Although I found a couple of minor misprints (footnotes on page viii and page 7, for instance), the text is well edited and the argument is clearly expressed.

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Now let me turn to Dr. Buzzell and his publications, paraphrasing what I wrote for this blog on September 28, 2011. (It is still archived here.) At the time I wrote: “It is apparent that there are many scientifically minded and technologically trained people like Dr. Buzzell who are ‘in the Work’ and are making sizeable efforts ‘to square’ what Mr. Gurdjieff wrote in ‘Beelzebub’s Tales’ with contemporary scientific and technological theories and practices. This is one way to ‘make relevant’ what the author wrote between 1924 and 1927, the text of which was translated into English and published in 1950 and subsequently reissued in a revised (and controversial) edition in 1992.”

Dr. A. Keith Buzzell was born in 1932, in Boston, Massachusetts. He studied music at Bowdoin College and Boston University, and received his medical doctorate in 1960 at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. For the past thirty-five years, he has been a rural family physician in Fryeburg, Maine, a staff member of Bridgton Hospital and currently holds the position of medical director at the Fryeburg Health Care Center.”

Dr. Buzzell has also served as a professor of osteopathic medicine, a hospital medical director and a founder of a local hospice program. He has lectured widely on the neurophysiologic influences of television on the developing human brain and on the evolution of man’s triune brain. In 1971 Keith, and his wife Marlena, met Irmis Popoff, a student of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky and the founder of the Pinnacle Group in Sea Cliff, Long Island, New York. From then until the mid-1980s they formed work groups under her supervision. Since 1988, Dr. Buzzell and Annie Lou Staveley, founder of the Two Rivers Farm in Oregon, maintained a Work relationship up to her death in 1996. Keith continues group Work in Bridgton, Maine.”

This information is also reprinted in the current book. As for the earlier volumes, these are the three volumes that I reviewed: “Perspectives on Beelzebub’s Tales and Other of Gurdjieff’s Writings” (2005). “A Child’s Odyssey: Explorations in Active Mentation: Re-Membering Gurdjieff’s Teaching” (2006). “Man – A Three-brained Being: Resonant Aspects of Modern Science and the Gurdjieff Teaching” (2007, 2nd edition, 2011).

I have found these books to be among the most serious publications about the physics, physiology, neurology, and psychology of G.I. Gurdjieff’s thought – and also the most demanding to read. In their comprehensiveness, they remind me of Maurice Nicoll’s five-volume series of “Psychological Commentaries,” but whereas Dr. Nicoll generally limited himself to the psychological aspects of the system, Dr. Buzzell does not so limit his inquiry but attempts to relate metaphysical concepts with chemical and physical reality. The present title is no exception.

The title of the book struck me as odd for the reason that I was unfamiliar with the expression “Gurdjieff’s whim.” I assumed I was missing something – I quite often have this feeling, and with some justification! (Indeed, the phrase brought to my mind the not-unrelated, traditional Islamic words “Mohammed’s wont.”) I checked Sophia Wellbeloved’s indispensable volume ‘Gurdjieff: The Key Concepts’ (2003) but found no references there to “whim.” Nowhere else in the literature of the Work have I encountered any discussion of “whim,” so I conclude it is a synonym for “aim.”

I checked the “Guide and Index” and located “whim” (in the singular) in “All & Everything,” where it appears in the original edition on page 688 of the section on “France.” The author wrote as follows: “ … they occupy themselves out of idleness, in order to satisfy their whims, with devising ‘new-forms-of-manifestations-of-their-Hasnamussianing,’ or as is said there, with ‘new fashions,’ and spread them from there over the whole of the planet.” There the word is used in the plural and it refers to things of passing interest. I reluctantly returned to the notion of “one’s personal aim” in life and in Work. Perhaps it was related to the three aims of Group Work.

I was still uncertain about this, even after reading, on page 1, the words attributed to Gurdjieff: “to live and teach so that there should be a new conception of God in the world, a change in the very meaning of the word.”  This is equated with Gurdjieff’s personal aim. Indeed, even earlier, on page ii, in the first of the prefaces, Toddy Smyth writes as follows: “In a rare moment of divulgence, Gurdjieff revealed his own whim: to bring to mankind a new understanding of God.”

There we have it. Smyth continues: “Keith Buzzell’s work is a verification of this whim – an aspect of a new understanding of God is to recognize and to gain the capacity to actualize one’s own whim. A portion of Dr. Buzzell’s whim could be summarized as the striving to understand how self-transformation – a process that requires the action of an independent will – can be possible within a Universe governed by unyielding, automatic law.”

Smyth goes on to describe the present book as “a dynamic synthesis of the indications found in ‘The Tales’ and ‘In Search’ with recent discoveries in quantum and cosmological science.” Indeed, as Dr. Buzzell has written elsewhere, “Gurdjieff’s conception of Okidanokh represents a major aspect of his effort to reconcile science and spirituality. As such, it plays a powerful role in his new conception of God in the world. The manner in which he accomplishes this reconciliation is quite ‘oblique’ or indirect and one has to read his complex elaboration with considerable care and attention to see how thoroughly he has blended the ‘way’ of science and of potential transformation with the ‘way’ of the spirit.”

He takes pains to place Gurdjieff’s exposition alongside those concerned with quantum physics and the theory of relativity. He could have added alongside as well of photographic proof of the expansion of the universe which was discovered by Hubble and Humason during the same period.

But perhaps the key passage appears in Philip Mairet’s memoir of A.R. Orage: “Whilst they were talking in this vein, someone asked Gurdjieff if he would disclose his own ‘whim,’ and he said it was to live and teach so that there should be a new conception of God in the world, a change in the very meaning of the word.” This passage is cited a number of times, and its source seems to be an unpublished lecture of J.G. Bennett’s. Bennett quotes Orage as saying his “whim” is to publish “the best literary journal in England,” an aim he achieved. Apparently the word “whim” in Armenian and Russian expresses not merely fantasy, as it does in English, in the sense of whimsy, but determination, intent, and wish. The reader will decide whether or not Gurdjieff realized his “whim.”

In some way this “new conception” is connected with those unwieldly terms Okidanokh and Triamazikamno, the former term representing the “reconciliation” of man’s inner world of three brains with the outer world that expresses the familiar Law of Three, and the latter term the all- encompassing Ray of Creation – our individual and collective place in the world.

Each of the fourteen chapters of Dr. Buzzell’s book is composed of sections a few pages in length, and any one section would lend itself to study and analysis, as it is immersed in the vocabularies of “The Tales” (as he refers to “Beelzebub’s Tales”) and “In Search of the Miraculous.” In this sense “Reflections” could be regarded as an organized gloss on central concepts presented in allegorical and other forms in “The Tales.”

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The sheer amount of information and analysis in the book would overwhelm the casual reader (as it does the ordinary reviewer!) who has but a general understanding of and a passing interest in the mechanics of the work’s dynamics. So what I will do is parasail from chapter to chapter, suggesting some insights to be found therein. The author has made this easy to do because, in effect, each chapter examines a specific aspect of the system – indeed, each key word unlocks a portion of the whole. Here are the topics of the chapters:

(1) Whim as aim. (2) Evils old and new. (3) Generations, notably sons and grandson. (4) Conscience, reason. (5) Wiseacre, know-it-all. (6) Laws of the universe. (7) Suggestibility, including hypnotism. (8) Okidanokh, or reconciliation of science and spirituality. (9) Essence which has mellowed. (10) Organic life. (11) Individual and group place and presence. (12) Foods and the Ray of Creation. (13) Reconciliation that allows for self-perfection in a structured universe. (14) Quantum considerations as approaches to “the non-mass and mass-based worlds.”

Some of the chapters come in two parts. I noticed that the earlier chapters are highly specific and analytic, whereas the later chapters are somewhat speculative, historical, and once in a while personal. (The early explorations bring to hazy recall the detailed discussions, chemical largely, mentioned by Dr. James Carruthers Young and others at the Priory in the mid-1920s.)

There is a shift of perspective in this book from impersonal to personal, and it could be said to occur around Chapter 10. The theory comes first, thereafter its application. Indeed, in that chapter, “The Life Force,” Dr. Buzzell describes two instances of awareness and intention that occurred to him, the first stemming from an encounter with a disliked hardware clerk, the second stemming from his habit of leaving his socks on the floor of his bedroom!

Here is a brief summary of the contents of Chapter 10, which may act as a guide to how the author proceeds. Synonyms for “life force” is mentioned: Qui, Chi, prana, Shakti, pneuma, Great Spirit, Godhead (Jehovah, God, Allah). These are Eastern conceptions and there is no “action from below” and it is all “action from above.” It is Western conceptions that offer “action from below,” and these are sometimes called vitalism, will to live, élan vital, life force, formative drive, entelechy, orgone, etc. For a balance of “actions,” turn to Taoism. Newton and Darwin and Quantum Mechanics and the Theory of Relativity have begun to “bridge” reduce the gap between spirit and matter (to use basic terms).

Here is what Gurdjieff brings to this notion: “There is no intimation that life of any type (non-brained and brained) was a unique or separate creation of HIS ENDLESSNESS.” Life is a universal phenomenon, the Ilnosoparnian process, with Earth as special because of the collision of the comet Kondoor. Earth, Moon, and Anulios and what they represent are “imbalanced” and hence requires special consideration.  There is much discussion of the nature of the “imbalance” based on passages from “The Tales.” “Gurdjieff carefully emphasizes the participation of the Divine Will Power _only_ at the onset of the Creation and yet has HIS ENDLESSNESS very active, via HIS Reason, _within_ the Creation.”

Everything proceeds lawfully. “The end result of the _actualizations_ of HIS ENDLESSNESS creates the possibility for the transformation and crystallization of ‘active elements’ …. ” As well: “Applying this Will, each of us three-brained begins can participate – be an active agent – in our own self-transformation. One becomes an active participant in the creation of the Higher Bodies. Efforts in this regard are _one’s own_ ; they are initiated from lower worlds and move upward. This is _evolution_ in the Gurdjieffian sense.”

The possible success of such effort leads to a discussion of “later octaves” in the Great Ray. (I would like to have known more about “coating bodies” vs. “crystallization.”) There is a section about: “All of life, therefore, is required and fulfills a cosmic need while, simultaneously, the actualizations of HIS ENDLESSNESS make it possible for certain of the three-brained begins to coat High Being-bodies.” This action is symbolically represented with respect to what looks like a multi-coloured cosmic pyramid. Movement (instinctive centre), eating (moving and instinctive), and survival (instinctive and moving and sex centre) are discussed. The role of H12, “the power of paying attention,” is discussed interestingly and importantly. Also discussed are characteristics and comparisons of first, second, and third brains.

Pages here resemble a textbook on neuro-anatomy. There is much discussion of the “location of attention” and the question is asked, “Where does ‘carbon 6’ come from?” The octaves of Food, Air, and Impressions are discussed. The subject is complicated, yet the exposition is clear, so the author deserves top marks for his hard work. In an ideal world – rather than on a planet like ours that falls under 48 laws – I would be able to summarize in greater detail the contents of all the chapters.

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The quality of any work that is serious may be judged by the influence that it has on serious-minded people. The Gurdjieff Work was introduced to the West in 1915, so it nearly one century old, perhaps a lot older in fragmentary form in the East. Texts that were written in the 1920s and published as late as the 1940s are still able to beget serious discussion and engender new thoughts and feelings. Proof of the seriousness of the Work is that it inspires Dr. Buzzell and other scholars and scientists to “dig deeper.” Yet for all its length and depth, it seems that “Reflections” is but the first half of Dr. Buzzell’s analysis. For it is promised that there will be a second volume in this series to be titled “Further Reflections on Gurdjieff’s Whim.” So stay tuned ….

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Lurking in the back of my mind, as I read these fourteen chapters, was the planet or star named Kolob and the lonely God of the Mormons, who lives in our cosmos, distant from us but not apart from existence. I must admit that this image brought to my mind Mr. Gurdjieff.

John Robert Colombo is an author and anthologist based in Toronto who is interested in esoteric ideas, Canadian lore and literature, jokes and anecdotes, and contemporary poetry. His latest collection of aphorisms is called “A Strange and Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore.” Check his website:  jrc@colombo.ca

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